written by Julia Larsen, job title

Like most languages in East Africa, Mbugwe will be represented with a Roman alphabet, but a number of adjustments are necessary to adequately represent the sounds of the language. During our first week-long workshop, we focused on the Mbugwe vowel sounds.

The Mbugwe participants discovered that their language cannot be written with the familiar five vowels used in Swahili. Two new vowel signs were proposed. The next week focused on consonants, and the third week focused on tone. Mbugwe is a tonal language, and will need at least some special markings to distinguish different word ‘melodies’, or tonal patterns. The idea of writing tone was quite new to our participants, who are all literate in Swahili.

The major advantage to doing linguistic research and making decisions together, with the Mbugwe community, is that they can now be advocates for the writing system which they have helped to develop. In Tanzania, the Swahili writing system is so widely known, that most people assume it is the only way to write a language, and without guidance from outside, would often try to write their own languages with the exact same alphabet, even if it does not work well and makes reading and writing difficult.

If we attempted to develop an Mbugwe alphabet without speaker participation, it would very likely be rejected by the speakers. When the Mbugwe participate fully in the process,however, they are able to understand why the alphabet needs to be different from Swahili. They have no reason to reject a writing system which they have developed themselves. We hope to continue with this

participatory method in other aspects of the project.